Monday, April 28, 2014

The Centennial of George Washington's Inauguration - April 30, 1889

This week marks the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States.  That event took place in New York City on April 30, 1789.  The centennial of that event in 1889 was marked with huge celebrations in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.  Let us look at how that centennial was celebrated.

Frances Glessner recorded the following entry in her journal on May 5, 1889:
“Tuesday was the centennial celebration of Washington’s inauguration.  The city was gay with bunting – fireworks were displayed at different places – and the immense crowd on the lake shore was unruly and many people were reported hurt.  A regiment passed by here in the morning.”

The Chicago celebration was organized by the Union League Club.  The day included exhibitions at museums, special church services, and elaborate opening exercises of the children outside schools around the city, all attended by huge crowds. 

The account of the service held at Second Presbyterian Church is typical and even includes some words of wisdom for the politicians of the day:
“The Rev. S. J. McPherson of the Second Presbyterian Church, Michigan avenue and Twentieth street, delivered a thoughtful and scholarly address on the character of Washington.  The impression frequently given out that Washington did everything easily was both mistaken and injurious.  He always took pains and it was his careful attention to detail that saved the American Republic.  He was never an officer seeker – a quality to be commended to the politicians of the present day.  He made himself so necessary that the office sought him.  That is the kind of civil service we need but do not seem able to get.  The organ loft and the rear of the pulpit were beautifully draped with large flags, and there were other decorations at the church.” 

Downtown buildings were elaborately decorated with flags, bunting, and huge portraits.  Several large venues in the downtown area served as sites for grand patriotic speeches about the life and impact of Washington in American history.

The Central Music Hall was the scene of one of these gatherings.  At 3:00pm, chairman Robert Todd Lincoln welcomed 3,500 guests into the hall which was draped in red, white, and blue bunting and mottoes.  The stage was surrounded by an arch of immense silken flags with a huge painting of George Washington as the keystone.  The stage featured a central pyramid of 100 female choristers dressed in red, white, and blue.  The ceremony began with the singing of “Hail, Columbia” with all the attendees waving miniature American flags.  Several speeches were offered including one by Dr. Simon J. McPherson, pastor at Second Presbyterian Church.

An interesting part of the celebration was the display of 1,001 artifacts from George Washington and the Revolutionary War era at the Exposition Building (now the site of the Art Institute).  The artifacts, which filled five large rooms, were from the collection of Charles F. Gunther, a wealthy Chicago confectioner and collector.  Items included letters signed by Washington, six paintings of Washington including three by Gilbert Stuart, and Washington’s bed and other items used during the War.  (Most of Gunther’s collection, which also included Lincoln’s deathbed, was eventually purchased by the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum).

As the day drew to a close, the huge crowds that had assembled downtown broke into three smaller masses and headed to the three displays of fireworks.  An elaborate banquet was held at the Union League Club for visiting dignitaries, with 200 in attendance.

The events in New York were even grander in scope.  President Benjamin Harrison retraced the itinerary of the first inauguration, travelling from the Governor’s mansion in New Jersey to New York, arriving by boat at the foot of Wall Street.  From there he proceeded to old Saint Paul’s Church on Broadway and finally to the site where Washington was administered the oath of office.  The city was the site of three days of festivities including military displays, parades, music, and much pageantry. 

President Harrison arrives at Wall Street

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier composed a special ode and Samuel Francis Smith, author of “America” (My Country Tis of Thee) composed a special fifth verse for the occasion:
            Our joyful hearts today,
            Their grateful tribute pay,
            Happy and free,
            After our toils and fears,
            After our blood and tears,
            Strong with our hundred years,
            O God, to Thee.

Parade passing Union Square on Broadway, New York City

Augustus St. Gaudens was commissioned to design a commemorative bronze medal. 

Many other less artistic souvenirs were created as well, such as the 12 inch cast iron commemorative hatchet shown below, recalling the famous story of Washington cutting down a cherry tree.

A large triumphal arch was erected over Fifth Avenue at Washington Square by local businessman William Rhinelander Stewart, who raised $2,765 from his friends for the project.  The arch, constructed of wood and plaster, was so well received that plans were made for a permanent version.

Architect Stanford White designed the new arch which was built in 1892; he donated his services for the project.  The Washington Arch, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, stands 77 feet tall and is constructed of white Tuckahoe (Westchester) marble.  The face is covered with images of war, peace and victory along with stars, capital “W”s and inscriptions.  Two additional statues of Washington known as Washington at War and Washington at Peace, were added in 1918.  They are the work of Hermon A. MacNeil and A. Stirling Calder (father of Alexander Calder), respectively. 

As a headline in the Chicago Tribune stated the next day, “When our babes are old, they will remember and talk about yesterday’s celebration.”

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Rees House and the Changing Face of Prairie Avenue

Rees house, 2110 S. Prairie Avenue

Hundreds of community residents packed into Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 S. Michigan Avenue on Monday April 14, 2014 for a meeting sponsored by the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance.  The major topic of the evening was the new DePaul Arena to be built on the north side of Cermak Road between Prairie and Indiana avenues, along with a convention hotel and data center on the block to the east between Prairie and Calumet avenues.

The project has raised the concern of preservationists since discussions first began well over a year ago.  At the center of the concern are two landmarked structures – the Harriet Rees house at 2110 S. Prairie Avenue, and the American Book Company building at 320 E. Cermak Road.  The good news reported at the meeting was that both structures will be preserved, although the Rees house will need to be moved.

At right - new site for the Rees house;
At left - William Reid house

On April 3, the Landmarks Commission approved a plan to relocate the Rees house approximately 400 feet to the north and across Prairie Avenue to a new site at 2017 S. Prairie Avenue.  That site is immediately south of the William Reid house (2013 S. Prairie Avenue), a similarly scaled rowhouse built in 1894, and, like the Rees house, the only surviving house on its block.  The move is scheduled to take place in July.  

The William Armour house, built in 1881, originally stood at 2017 S. Prairie Avenue, and was razed about 1956 to create a parking lot.

The 2100 block of Prairie Avenue looking northwest, 1890s;
the Rees house is second from the left

The same view, April 2014

The Rees house was built in 1888 for Harriet Rees, the widow of James H. Rees, a prominent real estate man whose abstract business was one of the companies that eventually merged to form Chicago Title and Trust Company.  

The architectural firm of Cobb & Frost, which designed several homes in the neighborhood, combined smooth limestone and Sullivanesque style ornamentation with Romanesque massing and form.  The result is a stately and elegant façade, tall and narrow, that would have fit in perfectly with its stylish neighbors occupied by the Sherman, Kimball, and Rothschild families.  An interesting feature of the house was a manually operated elevator used by the aging widow to access the upper floors of the house; it remains in place to this day.

After the death of Harriet Rees, the house was purchased by Edson Keith, Jr., who had grown up in his father’s house at 1906 S. Prairie Avenue.  The Keith family resided here until 1916, when daughter Katherine married architect David Adler.  By 1920, the home had been converted to a boarding house and was later used as offices.

In the 1970s, the Prairie House Café operated out of the old mansion.  It reverted back to apartments until 2001, when it was purchased by the Martorina family and extensively restored, earning landmark designation in 2012.

The American Book Company building (frequently referred to as the ABC building) was built in 1912 at 320 E. 22nd Street (now Cermak Road), and was designated a Chicago landmark in 2008.  

Architect N. Max Dunning designed an elegant but functional building of five stories with classical terra cotta and stone trim, and an imposing tower directly over the main entrance.  The building was acquired by R. R. Donnelley and Sons in 1938, which desperately needed to expand their operations to accommodate the printing of Time and Life magazines, along with catalogs for Sears and Montgomery Ward.  A new 1,200 room Marriott Marquis is planned for the site to the west of the ABC building, and the ABC will be converted into hotel ballrooms, meeting spaces, and offices, with the first floor housing retail establishments.  

DePaul Arena, Pelli Clarke Pelli, architects

Monday, April 14, 2014

Knight, Death and the Devil

Glessner House Museum features a large collection of engravings collected by John and Frances Glessner during the last quarter of the 19th century.  One of these, Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil, was recently put on permanent display as part of the reopening of the restored corner guestroom on April 9, 2014.  Donated to the museum by a great-grandson of the Glessners in 2010, this is the first time the piece has been on display in the house since the death of John Glessner in 1936.

Knight, Death and the Devil is one of the three “master prints” of Albrecht Dürer, a gifted and versatile German artist of the Renaissance period.  Executed in 1513, and titled simply the Reuter (Rider) by Dürer, the print depicts an armored Christian knight riding through a gorge with a pig-snouted devil behind and the figure of death holding an hourglass to the side. 

Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471 in Nuremberg, one of Europe’s most prominent artistic and commercial centers at the time.  A versatile artist, he was proficient as a painter, draftsman, and writer, but is most widely regarded for his impact on the medium of printmaking.  At an early age, he apprenticed with his father, a goldsmith, and with a local painter Michael Wolgemut, whose shop produced woodcut illustrations for books and publications.  Dürer became familiar with, and greatly admired, the work of Martin Schongauer, also considered a master of printmaking.  (One of Schongauer’s prints, a depiction of John the Baptist made about 1490, is also on display in the Glessners’ corner guestroom). 

Dürer truly revolutionized printmaking, making it an independent and well-respected art form.  His skills significantly expanded its tonal and dramatic range, as seen in the print on display at Glessner.  His two extended trips to Italy exposed him to the great works of the Italian Renaissance and the region’s classical heritage, and these important influences can be seen in his works.  He became the official court artist to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and his successor Charles V.

St. Jerome in His Study

In 1513 and 1514, Dürer completed a group of three images which have become known as his “Master Engravings.”  These include Knight, Death and the Devil, as well as Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I.  These three were not specific commissions, but were intended more for collectors, and their technical virtuosity and depth of meaning were unmatched by any of his earlier works.  Dürer died in 1528.

The inspiration for the Christian knight is believed to be taken from an address by Erasmus in his Instructions for the Christian Soldier, published in 1504:

“ In order that you may not be deterred from the path of virtue because it seems rough and dreary . . . and because you must constantly fight three unfair enemies – the flesh, the devil, and the world – this third rule shall be proposed to you: all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught after the example of Virgil’s Aeneas . . . Look not behind thee.” 

A second possible inspiration for the work is the familiar passage from Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In this print, the knight rides past Death who is depicted on a pale horse, holding out an hourglass to remind the knight of the brevity of life.  The face of Death is shown with neither nose nor lips, and snakes surround his neck and crown.  

Another symbol of death, a skull, appears in the bottom left-hand corner of the print, directly above a plaque inscribed S. 1513 AD (in the year of grace 1513).  

The pig-snouted figure of the devil behind the knight features rams horns at the sides and a single large curving horn protruding from the top of his head.  Amidst this dark and complex Nordic gorge, the knight, modeled on the traditional heroic equestrian portraits that Dürer would have seen in Italy, is undistracted and true to his mission.  His apparent destination is a hilltop stronghold visible above the dark forest.

Impressions are held in several major galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the British Museum in London.  The posthumous impression in the Glessner collection, based on an analysis of the paper, is believed to have been made about 1600.  The Glessners purchased the piece from Frederick Keppel for $80.00 in November, 1880.  Keppel was an importer of rare engravings, with galleries in London and New York, and the primary supplier of engravings to the Glessners.

NOTE:  For more information on Keppel, see the blog article dated December 16, 2013 regarding the Glessners’ Gesu Bambino engraving.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A restored bathroom

The museum officially reopened the guest bathroom on Thursday April 3, 2014 after six weeks of work, and months more of planning.  It had last been remodeled in the early 1970s when large Formica countertops and chrome bar lights with vanity bulbs were all the rage.  Located off the main hall beneath the landing of the main stairs, it measures just 4 by 5-1/4 feet, but involved the work of numerous craftsmen to restore as closely as possible the original appearance of the room, while still making it fully functional for our visitors. 

Work began last fall when research was undertaken to determine the original materials and finishes used in the room, since there are no known historic photographs of the space.  Original blueprints and building specifications provided valuable information verifying the use of quartersawn oak for the wainscoting and trim, and Knoxville marble for the base under the toilet.  

Oak low tank toilet and high tank enclosure 
in George's bathroom, 1966

Although the original high tank for the toilet remained in place, a 1966 photograph of an upstairs bathroom showed that the Glessners at some point switched to oak low tank models in at least some of the bathrooms.  That photograph also showed the original wood enclosure for the high tank. 

Toilet before (top) and after (bottom)

Once all the information was in place, the next step was to locate appropriate pieces.  Bathroom Machineries, a company in California which specializes in vintage and reproduction bathroom fixtures, proved to be the perfect source for several of the pieces.  This included the stunning quartersawn oak low tank (complete with seat bumper and side pull chain), circa 1916 toilet bowl (a rare piece 2 inches higher than normal bowls), and reproduction “cloak room” sink, as well as faucets and valves. 

Sink before (top) and after (bottom)

The sink is manufactured by Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. of England.  This company dates back to the 1860s when Crapper set up business as a plumber.  In time, he became a well-respected manufacturer and earned several royal warrants.   It is popularly held that Crapper was the inventor of the toilet (or W.C. as it is known in England) and that the term “crap” is derived from his name, but neither is true, although the term “crapper” for a toilet does have a more direct connection.  For more information on this history, visit the company website,

The company logo is prominently displayed in the bowl of the sink as well as on the two reproduction “W.C. paper” boxes sitting atop the tank of the toilet (used to store spare rolls).

High tank prior to construction of new enclosure

New enclosure for high tank

The original high tank was preserved and is once again encased in a wood enclosure identical to what would have been in the room when the house was first built.  One small change was the insertion of a small window on the front of the tank, so that the logo of the manufacturer, Meyer Sniffen Co., could still be seen.  (Meyer Sniffen fixtures were used throughout the house when first constructed). 

Top - original oak pull used on the toilet in the master bathroom
(the original rubber ring had been lost by the time of the photo, 1948)
Bottom - vintage oak pull in use in the restored guest bathroom

The original pull chain was still in place and a vintage oak pull was located in England that matched those used by the Glessners as seen in the two images above.  (The black band around the restored pull is a rubber ring to prevent damage to the wall when the pull chain swings and hits the wood).

The 1970s toilet had been set atop a one inch depression in the floor which always looked most unsightly.  Research uncovered the specifications for the original marble base which had a small depression cut into the top around the toilet bowl to collect water runoff or “sweat” to protect the surrounding oak floor.  Using original marble bases still in place at the Driehaus Museum as a guide, a new piece of marble was cut and set into the floor.

Most of the original oak wood wainscoting and top trim was missing and has been replicated exactly based on surviving pieces.  Original casing and jambs around the window and door, as well as the door itself, have been stripped of numerous layers of paint.  The floor, which had also been painted, proved to be a special challenge and it required extensive bleaching and sanding to remove decades of water stains.

The location of the original stiff-arm wall sconce was identified, and a vintage fixture was restored and silver-plated, just as the original would have been. 

Next to the sconce, the original mirror has been put back in place.  This was an exciting find.  Although the original mirror was in the museum collection, it was not known that the mirror had hung in this room.  When the large wall mirror, installed in the 1970s, was removed during renovation, a paint outline on the wall verified that the mirror had in fact been located in this bathroom.

John Glessner wrote that one of his few regrets about the design of the house was using silver-plated fixtures in the bathroom, due to the constant need for polishing.  This was at the recommendation of H. H. Richardson, who felt nickel was a cheap substitute for silver-plate.  Not wishing to burden our current staff with the job of polishing the bathroom fixtures all the time, we opted for period polished nickel pieces.  

These include an 18” glass shelf supported on nickel-plated brass brackets patented by The Brasscrafters Co. in 1906, and a nickel toilet tissue holder and cup holder (repurposed to hold a bottle of hand soap), both Wilwear, produced by the Novelty Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Conn. in the early 1900s.

After extensive replastering of the ceiling and upper half of the wall, the room was repainted using the original colors – a very light green on the ceiling and a medium olive green on the walls and high tank enclosure.  A simple curtain, made from an historically appropriate white striped dimity, covers the window.

A final touch was the installation of two hooks on the door.  The bronze hooks are original to the house and were removed from a female servant’s closet, stripped and polished.  

This project, funded by a generous anonymous gift to our 125th anniversary fund, has resulted in the complete transformation of one of our least impressive spaces in the museum into a true showpiece.  As the only restored bathroom in the house, it provides visitors with an accurate view of how these rooms appeared at the turn of the 20th century.  
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